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An open letter to all athletes: Please eat your carbs.

Dear Athletes,

I bet you've been given a lot of unsolicited advice on how to be you.

How to be a better athlete.

How to look like an athlete.

How to perform like an athlete.

How to eat as an athlete.

Who knew eating as an athlete could be so complicated. Potentially stressful. And controversial. Being torn between "looking the part" and simply eating after practice because your famished shouldn't carry the pressure it does.

From my experience working with athletes and being an athlete, I've heard a lot of "oh, I just don't eat carbs. They're not healthy" or "I eat huge meals of protein!" I'm not here judge, or tell you how you're eating is *wrong*. I'm here as a sports healthcare professional. And all I want to say is, please, eat your carbs.

Here's the science behind my plea.

Your brain needs carbs.

Carbohydrates are the fuel your brain runs on. All those split-second decisions you make on the field, the dives and tackles, those PR's you make from that last mental push....are all thanks to glucose, the energy source for you brain. Glucose can be derived from other food sources and macronutrients, but is most readily available from straight carbohydrate sources. Our brains are glucose-hogs. The amount of glucose our brains require vastly outweighs the amount our musculoskeletal system needs. Just while in a resting state, your brain utilizes 60% of your body's available glucose.

Looking for more?

Have you ever noticed your energy levels increase after a meal? Or you can magically think clearer after eating? This is because you've resupplied your body (and your brain) with glucose and it's operating at full capacity again.

Your muscles need them, too.

Our muscles need fuel, too. I know we've all heard about eating at least 20g of protein within a 30min (or 60min) window AFTER working out, but what about how to fuel and prepare our muscle BEFORE a workout? No, not pre-workout and not BCAAs (supplements is a whole other blog post....).

Our muscles run on glycogen and glucose, also carbohydrate derivates (or building blocks). We're able to complete our workout of choice by using the energy stored in these components, in addition to energy stored in fat. We access those energy resources by metabolizing, or breaking down, both of those macronutrients at the same time. (*science!*)

Have you ever noticed that post-workout protein shakes often times include a fairly hefty serving of carbs, too? This is why. The science behind that shake is to 1) resupply your used-up glycogen/glucose stores and 2) provide protein for muscle recovery. You need BOTH. What's the use if you replace old car parts, but never put gas in the engine and actually run it? Your car isn't going to perform any better. Same with your muscles.

Your athletic performance will improve with carbs.

Based on what we discussed above, I hope it's starting to make sense HOW fueling up on carbs would positively impact your athletic performance. There are countless scientific studies out there supporting eating carbs prior to and afterwards for appropriate "load and re-loading" or expenditure and recovery with the body's favorite energy supply. By eating an appropriate serving size for your body type and workout intensity, carbs will provide you the energy you need to compete or complete your workout and keep you mentally sharp while doing so. They also ward off quick fatigue, giving you a competitive edge. Because remember, you need to FUEL your body and by doing so, you PRIME your performance.

You've stuck me this far, and probably have more questions than answers.

Like what kind of carbs? How much? What do you mean depending on my body type and activity/workout intensity?

Let's see if I can answer those quickly...

What kind of carbs?

They can range from very starchy ones like breads, pastas, deserts to less dense ones like rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, even fruits! How you use these, is the trick. Put simply, you probably shouldn't make a steady diet out of just pasta and bread. But you're also not going to have enough energy but just eating fruit. There is a time and place for BOTH of these carb categories. Think long term endurance fueling with the first list of starchier ones. For everyday snacks and well balanced meals, think the second list. Need more information? This is the stop where I get off as a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Look into seeing a registered dietician. Those folks are amazing resources!

How much do I eat?

This is where body type and workout intensity come into play.

Fact: For maintenance (not weight gain, no weight loss), larger bodies require a higher daily calorie count. Smaller bodies require a lower daily calorie count

If both a larger athlete and a smaller athlete with the SAME fitness level complete the SAME workout, the larger one will still burn more calories than the smaller one. Therefore, the larger athlete will need a larger serving of carbs/proteins/fats to refuel. Make sense so far?

Again, I'm going to defer to my registered dietician friends as to how much YOU specifically need based on your body type and activity levels.

Speaking for myself though, I've found that I've been able to reach my fitness and weight goals by simply following serving size suggestions. (Imagine that, I know!) I can most definitely feel a difference during a long day at work or during an intense workout when I have not fueled properly with an appropriate serving of carbs.

So athlete, what do you think?

I hope you accomplish everything you set to do and accomplish. I hope you fulfill your greatest dreams and never let failure be the end. I hope at the end of the day you can eat that bowl of pasta and know you're doing yourself and your body a favor by fueling it and preparing yourself for you best athletic performance yet.

Your sports physical therapist,

Marie Whitt, PT, DPT

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